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by Jay Seaver

"The meanest bits of Japan and Hong Kong."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Though they often wind up on American shelves labeled as just "Asian", the movies that come out of the various countries in that corner of the world tend to have distinct flavors. With the world getting smaller for all of us, it is therefore not a complete surprise that we're starting to see more obvious crossbreeds like "Shamo" (and "Sasori", also at the festival) - garish Japanese craziness mixed with brutal Hong Kong action.

Shamo is based on a manga by Izo Hashimoto, but relocated to Hong Kong for this film (while most of the characters are given Chinese names in the spoken dialog, the Japanese names are used in the subtitles, so that's how they'll be referred to here). It tells the story of Ryo Narushima (Shawn Yue), who is sent to prison at the age of sixteen for the brutal murders of his parents. While inside, he's initially gang-raped, but soon meets karate master Kurogawa (Francis Ng), who molds him into an extraordinary fighter. Upon release (he was sentenced as a juvenile), he just wants to find his sister Natsumi (Weiying Pei), whom he fears has fallen into a life of vice, much as he has. He finds prostitute Megumi (Annie Liu) instead, and enters the world of mixed martial arts to try and raise his profile so that Natsumi can find him, which exposes him to a whole new group of characters: Sugawara (Masato), the reigning champion; Konuzuke, the man behind the LF ("Lethal Fight") league; Fujiyoshi, the big guy who becomes Ryo's manager, and Ryuchi Yamasaki (Dylan Kuo), the half-blind trainer trying to start a competing, less corrupt organization.

Director Soi Cheang's debut feature, Dog Bite Dog, had a reputation for shocking violence and bleakness, and while I haven't seen it to compare, I suspect that Shamo is a little more mainstream. It's still by no means a sanitized, comfortable movie: Ryo and Megumi live squarely in the underbelly of Hong Kong, with Ryo frequently coming off as little more than a caged animal. The world of LF is suitably garish, with Konuzuke happily treating fighters as mere grist for the mill, and the most brutal violence generally reserved for those who deserve it least.

This gives Shawn Yue relatively free reign to go feral with Ryo, and he runs with it. Ryo is a fine anti-hero; he's got a hair-trigger temper, and even before that's set off there's not much that comes out of his mouth that doesn't sound like a threat. Yue plays him as so consumed by anger and obsession that when he does do something good or decent, neither he nor we is quite sure why. It's a showy, broadly-played role, but it's supposed to be; anything less, and we might occasionally think that Ryo still has some grip on his sanity.

The rest of the cast fits into Shamo's seedy world almost as well; I particularly liked Liu as Megumi, who comes across as a convincing mix of street smart and desperate as she falls for Ryo. There's a little bit of kink to the start of their relationship - he initially thinks he's found his sister, as she's hooking under the name Natsumi - and if she grows a conscience faster than he does, she also remains more pragmatic. Ng is a wise but sinister presence as Ryo's teacher; imprisoned for killing the Prime Minister, he's cold enough that releasing the likes of Ryo on the world may be his final act of revenge.

Cheang and the other filmmakers mix it together at near-boiling. For the urban scenes he uses a combination of deep blacks and sickly yellows, and scenes showing Konuzuke's wealth are similarly grandiose. The fights are well-staged even though they're not pretty or graceful; raw hunger and rage makes up for it. There are only one or two moments that go for any sort of sentimentality, but Cheang manages to walk the line between Shamo being dark and exciting and it being any sort of celebration of nastiness.

In that respect, it may actually be a bit less hardcore than its brutal source material. It's still a nasty piece of work, but a well-made one.

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originally posted: 08/27/08 00:47:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 25-Nov-2008



Directed by
  Soi Cheang

Written by
  Izo Hashimoto
  Szeto Kam-Yuen

  Shawn Yue
  Dylan Kuo
  Francis Ng
  Bruce Leung
  Annie Liu
  Ryo Ishibashi

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